State Of Minorities In Africa: There Is Some Good News

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Written by Andrew Friedman

In part one of this AFKInsider mini series we examined the tremendous diversity of religions, ethnicities and languages across the African continent. Last week the Minority Rights Group International released its annual State of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples report that had some disturbing stories regarding the treatment of minorities across the continent.

In many different countries religious, ethnic and linguistic minorities are targeted for hatred either without government intervention or with tacit government approval and that hatred can quickly devolve into violence. The Central African Republic is an all too clear example of this.

Despite the report’s troubling tales across the continent, it is not all bad news.

As noted in part one, several countries across the continent are completely without legislation meant to prevent hate speech, which can quickly spiral into ethnic violence and crime. Even those countries that have crafted such legislation have struggled to find a balance between being too lenient to be effective and being tools of oppressive governance, as is the case in Rwanda, Chad, Burundi and the Republic of the Congo.

South Africa has taken tremendous strides in an attempt to change all of that. The country is working to craft legislation that will get at the heart of inter-group animosity rather than simply punishing the symptoms. To do this, South Africa created the “Hate Crimes Working Group,” a group that worked with civil society leaders to determine the importance of such a law and craft adequate legislation.

According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, this legislation will offer broad protections, including attacks based on sexual orientation and against migrants, two of the groups most frequently targeted in hate crimes.

It is important to note that Hate Speech regulation still encounters a diverse opposition in South Africa, in large part due to the country’s strong constitutional protections of the freedom of expression and free speech.

There is hope that the broad consultations and the balancing act between freedom of speech and protections will allow the legislation to be a model for the rest of the continent.

Of course, even countries with stringent laws must enforce them, otherwise they are simply words on a page. Over the past year both Guinea and the Cote D’Ivoire made tremendous strides in alleviating the ongoing culture of impunity for gross human rights violators.

Human rights violations

In Guinea a number of senior government officials were indicted for a variety of human rights violations surrounding a 2009 massacre in the country’s capital, while on the Cote D’Ivoire 33 members of the military were indicted for a similar incident.

Both were slaughters in the wake of contested elections that not only had strong political implications, but also ethnic overtones. These prosecutions are important for resolving the tensions and ending impunity.

In addition to government action, both through the creation of new laws against hate speech and the prosecution of tremendous human rights violations, there are a number of other community strengthening measures that have been pioneered throughout the continent in recent years.

One of the most innovative of the programs is Studio Ijambo in Burundi. Studio Ijambo is a radio program meant to serve “as an alternative platform to promote dialogue and tolerance…” The organization Search for Common Ground saw this as an important way to use the radio, a tool that had been such an important part of the horrifying violence during the Rwandan genocide and simultaneous violence in Burundi, to promote tolerance across ethnicities.

The successes of these programs have been notable, with Floride Ahitungiye, the director of programs for Search for Common Ground, telling the Minority Rights Group International that in the country, “the media landscape has changed thanks to these initiatives.”

Civil society has also stepped up where government has failed in other parts of the continent. This year’s report details People Suffering Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP), a South African migrants rights organization.

PASSOP works in various facets, combating negative stereotypes against migrants and assisting individual migrants with things such as visas, education and resumes for job applications.

Dialogue and understanding

Additionally, the organization hosts “integration events and workshops to promote dialogue and understanding between different nationalities and immigrant communities.” Braam Hanekom, PASSOP’s director told the Report’s researchers that the organization “believe[s] that it is a lack of understanding and dialogue that provides a toxic environment where hate crimes and discrimination are more likely to occur. Stereotypes about different nationalities unfairly paint migrants with a broadly negative brush.”

Africa is an amazingly diverse place. The numbers of ethnicities, languages and religious practices across the continent number well into the thousands. When a land mass with such complex demographics is split into countries, often arbitrarily, it can be a recipe for disaster.

In many instances since the mass anti-colonial movements of the 1960s, it has been just that. Unfortunately such tensions and violence continue to this day. The last half century of such incidents do not mean that the world should resign itself to continual hate, tension and violence.

Several of the continent’s governments are heading in the right direction and many more civil society organizations are filling in where governments fail. The continent need not be resigned to continual ethnic and religious hatred and violence. The strides of the last year prove that.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at afriedm2@gmail.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.